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Clarence Clemons Passes Away at 69 Years Old

Clarence Clemons
Roger Kisby, Getty Images

Clarence Clemons, perhaps the most popular member of Bruce Springsteen‘s E Street Band, passed away at the age of 69 today (June 18). The saxophone player was fighting for his life at a Florida hospital this past week, but succumbed to complications from a massive stroke he suffered on June 12. In an official statement, Springsteen said, “He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage.”

As a kid in Norfolk, Va., Clemons was given a saxophone by his father at age 9. Early on, his music talents were matched by his football skills. He played football for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, but injuries from a car accident cost him a tryout for the Cleveland Browns. That led Clemons to focus on his music career.

Clemons first met the Boss in 1971, when the Big Man walked into a club to catch Springsteen’s band playing a gig. The sax player told singer-guitarist that he’d like to play with him, and Springsteen obliged.

“The first song we did was an early version of ‘Spirit in the Night,’” recalled Clemons in a 1998 interview. “Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives.”

In October 1972, Clemons became an original member of what would be later known as the E Street Band. Earlier that year, he laid down saxophone tracks on ‘Spirit in the Night’ and ‘Blinded by the Light’ for Springsteen’s ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’ album. The Boss’ backing group would officially be named the E Street Band in 1974.

It was 1975′s ‘Born To Run’ on which Clemons would make arguably his most memorable contributions to Springsteen’s catalog. The Big Man’s saxophone playing on such songs as the title track, ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Jungleland’ helped make those tunes the classic tracks they still are today.

Other great sax contributions from Clemons on Springsteen albums include ‘The Ties That Bind’ and ‘Sherry Darling’ off 1980′s ‘The River,’ and ‘I’m Going Down’ and ‘Bobby Jean’ from 1983′s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ His solo on Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ is also a highlight, with the Boss uttering the intro line, “Clarence, you been, you been rehearsing real hard now, so Santa’ll bring you a new saxophone, right?”

Outside of his work with Springsteen, Clemons took a stab at vocals on ‘You’re a Friend of Mine,’ his 1985 duet with Jackson Browne. He also plays sax on soul legend Aretha Franklin’s 1985 hit ‘Freeway of Love.’ Most recently, he performed on a few tracks on pop superstar Lady Gaga’s latest album, ‘Born This Way.’ He also released a number of solo albums throughout his career.

Outside of music, Clemons made a number of film and television appearances, including roles in ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and ‘Diff’rent Strokes.’

In 2009, Clemons released a collection of stories called ‘Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales.’ The book features a foreword by Springsteen, whose words offer a great summation of Clemons’ importance to the E Street Band:

“The story I have told throughout my work life, I could not have told as well without Clarence.”

Top 10 Clarence Clemons Songs

Watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Perform ‘Thunder Road’

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